I was exiting the mall today when I passed an ad for a church in our area whose name I’ve forgotten. I’ve walked by this ad a dozen times, it’s quite noticeable: two extremely energetic singers are punching the air, the name of the church plastered across the bottom, and large superlatives with exclamation points in the corners. It’s quite vibrant. If that was what I was looking for in a church, I’d be sold.

As I passed the ad this time, I noticed that one of the superlatives was “Spirit-Filled!” It caught me with a little punch in the gut. It’s a phrase I’m not fond of.

“Spirit-filled” is a popular buzzword around here. It pokes up in every church’s advertisements, from the church down the road to the megachurches downtown. When I was creating an advertisement for a church service this year, the phrase was suggested, re-suggested, and finally insisted upon. Management felt very strongly it set the right tone for what we were doing.

I understand why, of course. “Spirit-filled” indicates energy, vitality, perhaps even exuberance. More importantly, it implies God without really announcing God, the way “Christ-centered” or “Bible-believing” would; it says “God’s a part of what we’re doing here. But in a fun way.”

There’s a prevailing belief, particularly in larger churches, that this is way to win new people into their communities. The belief is insidious, it doesn’t affect just poorly run or spiritual dead churches, it is the natural progression of attitudes that follows large-scale growth. A church passes a point where it is a group meeting together on Sundays and becomes a service that people attend, and finally perhaps a show that people come to see. It is the way of such things.

Once a church reaches that point, they stop thinking about new members in a personal way (“I’m going to invite my neighbor Jack to church”) and begin thinking in terms of untapped markets and appealing to those dissatisfied with their “competitors” (“how can we reach the upper-middle class single mothers who don’t like praise music?”). And so church becomes, in small degrees, less a time for praising and reflecting on what God has done and more an opportunity to swell their ranks. They start to create services that “attract people.” They look for ways to be “slicker,” “more professional,” and above all “seeker-friendly.”

Understand, I’m part of the worst of it. I’m a member of a church media staff. If you want to take a shot at anyone who’s glossing over the rough edges of the Gospel, look at the guy who’s trying to cut it down to a 30-second clip. But it bothers me.

Howerver, I think that all of that isn’t really what bothered me about seeing the phrase “Spirit-filled” on that poster. I think what bothered me is that it implies that we already know that the Spirit is showing up, available at our beck and call with a snap of our fingers. And depending on what you believe about the Holy Spirit, perhaps He is, but to me it just makes Him sound like a dog on a leash. The Holy Spirit is now available, recently installed and fully functional, just past the coffee shop but before you get to the playground. Sometimes you have to crank him a little to get him going.

Maybe my view on the Holy Spirit is different from yours, but I don’t think that sounds right to me. To me, saying a service will be “Spirit-filled” is like saying “Come to church on Sunday, the building will be inexplicably destroyed by an unforeseeable natural disaster.” When we call on the name of the Lord, he hears us, and when we ask the Holy Spirit to come inside us, he does, but it’s not some parlor trick. It’s not something we’ve learned to control. It’s bigger than us, and always will be, no matter how many enthusiastic singers we have punching the air.

And exuberance or no exuberance, I’d rather be at the “Christ-centered” church any day.